Sevier tourism rebounds two years after wildfire

Sevier tourism rebounds two years after wildfire

Moms and millennials are Sevier County’s hope for the future.

The surge of recovery efforts from the 2016 wildfire has tapered off, so tourism officials there are looking to maintain – indeed, to grow – the visitor numbers that helped the county bounce back.

Related: Gatlinburg wildfire survivor receives new home from Appalachia Service Project

Pigeon Forge spends $11 million-plus on marketing

Pigeon Forge spends nearly $11 million per year on marketing, not counting the extra infusion of cash in the year after the fire, said Leon Downey, executive director of the city’s Department of Tourism. This year’s budget hasn’t been approved yet, but plans for how to use it are well underway.

This week the Pigeon Forge Advisory Board met at the Department of Tourism office to talk about the marketing plan.

Scott Alexander, account supervisor for digital agency USDM, told the board that much of Pigeon Forge’s marketing plan is for online social media aimed at the “mom audience” and “millennial audience.”

“About 40 percent of the people coming to Pigeon Forge today are millennials,” he said.

Those ages 25 to 49 are willing to drive up to 300 miles to an attraction, Alexander said.

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Both groups heavily influence and are influenced by their social connections. Younger people in particular are the target of a “mobile-first” strategy, with shareable content optimized for smartphones, Alexander said.

“I like the saying that they don’t go online, they live online,” he said.

Hopeful signs

Immediately after the 2016 wildfire that killed 14 people, destroyed more than 2,500 buildings – many of them hillside cabins rented to vacationers – and did about $1 billion in reported damage, spokespeople for Gatlinburg, Pigeon Forge and Sevierville said the best way to help was for visitors to return and patronize the attractions. That happened; area businesses reported a solid 2017, even some increases from pre-fire traffic.

Now tourism officials want to sustain that momentum: “Tourism is our only industry in Gatlinburg and Sevier County,” Mark Adams, president and CEO of the Gatlinburg Convention & Visitors Bureau, wrote last year.

A new report from vacation-rental website Tripping.com indicates those hopes will be realized. Summer vacation rental bookings in Gatlinburg are up 53 percent from last year, while such rentals in Pigeon Forge increased 40 percent from 2017, the report found.

Tripping.com searches other sites such as HomeAway, VRBO and Booking.com for the best short-term vacation rental prices, covering more than 12 million properties in 150,000 destinations worldwide, according to a news release. The new data comes from Tripping.com searches for vacation rentals between Memorial Day and Labor Day weekends.

Downey said owners of some local attractions have been a little nervous, worried that crowds so far seem small. But he tells them the season never really starts until June 15, when all schools will be out and families start their vacations in earnest.

Indications from advance bookings match the Tripping.com report, showing a strong year, Downey said.

The same is true in Sevierville, said Amanda Maples Marr, Sevierville Convention & Visitors Bureau marketing director. Many local business owners she’s talked to say they have rebounded well from the fire, with some seeing growth, she said.

“We’re expecting a great year,” Marr said.

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Visitors from Florida tell why they’re visiting Sevier County now, and what reports on November’s wildfire meant to them. Wochit

Gatlinburg tourism officials didn’t provide comments on their expectations.

Spending surge subsides

Last year state officials put $5 million into marketing Sevier County, and local governments added to the push. Pigeon Forge put an extra $2.9 million into marketing, enabling the annual summer ad campaign to start six weeks early; while the Gatlinburg CVB spent an extra $2 million on the first half of 2017, months before the ad campaign usually began.

That surge won’t be repeated this year, Downey said. His department has requested about the same base amount this year as in 2016 – though the base marketing budget has grown steadily from just over $1 million in 1990 to nearly $11 million in 2016, he said.

“We’re the one department in city government that generates revenue. The others spend money,” Downey said.

Pigeon Forge’s tourism officials work closely with those in Gatlinburg, Sevierville and state government to promote the Smoky Mountains, he said.

“The research is very clear. When people come here, they’re going to spend money in all three cities,” Downey said.

The post-fire push was a big change for Sevierville’s tourism marketing – buying ads earlier, and aggressively targeting specific big markets, Marr said. Though the funding surge is over, that harder-hitting strategy is here to stay, she said.

The Sevierville CVB’s projected budget is $3.8 million for the fiscal year which starts July 1, but like Pigeon Forge’s, it hasn’t yet been approved by the city, Marr said.

“For us in Sevierville, we’re pretty much back to normal in our marketing budget this year,” she said.

Reaching further

Gatlinburg is the 17th most popular tourism destination nationwide, and Pigeon Forge is No. 19, according to Tripping.com’s survey. They’re the only two Tennessee spots on the top 25 list. Every place that outranks Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge is a southern or West Coast beach destination, except for New York City and Orlando.

Among the top 10 mountain/lake destinations, Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge were almost alone in reporting growth. The only exception was South Lake Tahoe, California, at No. 10, the report said. The other seven all saw visitors shrink – even Asheville, North Carolina, at No. eight, expects visits to decline 11 percent, according to Tripping.com booking numbers.

Tennessee was the fastest-growing state for international travel in 2017, according to the Tennessee Department of Tourist Development. For the fourth year, the state is one of the top 10 travel destinations in the U.S, with international visitors spending $934 million here last year, state officials said. Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia and Germany are the biggest sources for Tennessee’s international visitors, in that order.

British Airways has started nonstop service from London’s Heathrow Airport to Nashville. Seeking to capitalize on that, two weeks the state Department of Tourist Development and the tourism agencies from Tennessee’s three largest cities – including Visit Knoxville – are putting on a “Sights & Sounds of Tennessee” exhibit at Waterloo Station, the London hub of Great Britain’s rail network. It’s expected to be seen by 275,000 commuters per day, according to Visit Knoxville. The exhibit includes a state map, Tennessee music recordings and other interactive features. That’s just part of a month-long campaign intended to draw more British visitors to Tennessee.

“It’s not a huge amount of our business here, but we get a pretty significant amount of international travelers,” Downey said.

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